The Yamaha Corporation first released the Vocaloid software program in January 2004. Vocaloid utilizes sampled phonemes to permit composers to create unique vocal tracks by typing melodies onto a piano roll-like interface, then inputting lyrics note by note. The software allows the user to change the stress of the pronunciations and add effects like vibrato, or change the vocal tone. Japanese, Chinese and English-language versions are currently available.
One of the most popular Vocaloid “singers in a box” is Hatsune Miku, originally released by the awesomely named Crypton Future Media in 2007. Miku is visually represented by an anime girl with aquamarine pigtails and a short schoolgirl-like dress, and has released hit singles and even performed concerts using 3-D holographic technology. Now, Vocaloid music has come to the U.S. pop market, with the release of Femme Fatale, the new CD by “Britney Spears.” (Buy it from Amazon.)
The voice of “Britney Spears” is easily identifiable—a haltingly coquettish, mall-girl chirp, with an extremely narrow range but a reasonable degree of pitch control. On albums like …Baby One More Time and Oops! I Did It Again, recorded by a Louisiana-based voice performer not coincidentally also named Britney Spears, there were few egregiously wrong notes. This was to be expected: when you’re only working with about a half-octave’s worth of range, it’s hard to fuck ’em up, and the fact that she never went for a big scream, choosing instead to croon, whisper, or murmur, helped too. And, of course, all Spears albums have been released in the ProTools era, where fixes are seamless and invisible.
On Femme Fatale, though, that original voice (let’s call it “source code Britney”) is tweaked into anonymity by software. Every single song finds her Autotuned, digitally chopped and stuttering, to the point that it’s obvious she did not perform these songs as they are heard, because it would be physically impossible for a human voice to do so. The pitch alterations and robotic repetition of phrases are entirely the creation of a producer at a computer keyboard, and have nothing to do with audio recording as it was known for most of the 20th Century.
Almost every track on Femme Fatale is an uptempo dance number (the sole exception is the closing “Criminal”), with thick, squelching synth lines and thumping drum machines providing all the music. The word “lines” is the only suitable choice; “melodies” would imply more variation than is present. Most of these riffs could be played on one finger, and harmony is almost entirely absent—indeed, harmony is subverted by the alien chirping of the Autotuned voices (not only “Spears,” but the anonymous backup singers that pop up on a few tracks, as well as the unnamed male voice on “How I Roll,” which might even be the “Spears” voice again, digitally pitched down). The only vocal presence with any personality is the female rapper Sabi, who delivers a verse on “(Drop Dead) Beautiful.” That song also features a breakdown during which “Spears” giggles, and even the laugh is digitally manipulated in a way reminiscent of similar sounds on songs by Ke$ha, a Spears imitator whom the Spears production team is now imitating.
Femme Fatale is fun, but it’s not a flawless product. There are a few glitches. At one point during the first single, “Hold It Against Me,” it sounds for a second like the Vocaloid software has been haphazardly programmed—“Britney” pronounces the spoken phrase “If I said I want your body, would you hold it against me?” in a way that sounds oddly non-American. Not necessarily Japanese, but definitely not the product of the American South (remember, source code Britney is a Louisiana native). And on just about every other song, the voice is manipulated to sound very slightly different. There are tinges of the original Britney personality remaining, but they’re diluted to an almost homeopathic degree, serving more as signifiers than manifestations of a genuinely human presence. On “Big Fat Bass,” produced by will.i.am, the voice sounds less like any previous version of Britney Spears—and, indeed, more like Fergie—than anywhere else on the CD.
Femme Fatale is ultimately more of a synth and vocoder demo reel than an album in the traditional sense of that term. The creative team has done a superb job of demonstrating the capabilities of their software. Some of the songs are quite good (“Till the World Ends,” “I Wanna Go,” “How I Roll,” “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” “Trouble for Me”), and are so lyrically vague and generic, they could have been hits under almost any brand name. This is the problem, though; the total impersonality of the lyrics ultimately chips away at the value of the “Britney” brand, as it ceases to represent any kind of recognizable human personality.
Pop in the aggregate always represents the most basic human feelings: being in love is good, we broke up and I’m sad, I’m in the club and everyone’s looking at me. But the best pop artists have always personalized these tropes, sometimes in confrontational ways (Madonna at her late ’80s/early ’90s peak, and Pink starting with her second album) and other times by making them a platform for hyperinflated mythmaking (Lady Gaga). Frank Sinatra made albums in the 1950s that felt as personal as anything the confessional singer-songwriters of the 1970s ever came up with; Elvis Presley was able to inhabit the songs his producers brought him to a sometimes transcendent degree, especially during his most artistically self-conscious period (roughly, 1968’s From Elvis in Memphis through 1975’s Promised Land). Britney Spears never did this, and “Britney Spears” obviously can’t.
By severing the link between Britney Spears, the person seen in tabloids and on TMZ, and the voice heard on the “Britney Spears” records, the music is rendered meaningless, disposable, and—most damaging to an industry still fixated on a rapidly collapsing star system—ignorable. Femme Fatale is impossible to see as an artistic statement by a human personality, and that illusion of artistry is all that gives pop what little meaning it has. The entire “Britney Spears” product line may be at risk if the manufacturers don’t get this factor under control, quickly.